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Animated Edition - Winter 2006
Something always happens
Antony Waller's penchant for devising and curating bold site-specific performance events and programmes with theatre consortia, promoters, schools and artists has captivated thousands of people, whole communities and attracted international acclaim. As he moves into new territory he reflects on the serendipity of a journey spanning 25 years and explains to Scilla Dyke the importance of basic instincts and the necessity of retaining at the very core the underlying values that underpin the integrity of a 'great idea'
'I suppose most people give up a job because there is another more exciting or better paid one on offer, but after eight extraordinary years at The Works in Cornwall I decided it was time to change. Is it courageous or just plain silly? Who knows? It's just one of those things that has to happen. However as it turns out, this is definitely a defining moment...

'Whenever anyone has asked me what I do, I've always been a bit stymied. I've often thought it would be great to be able to say something straightforward - car mechanic, trapeze artist... turf accountant perhaps but it's never been that easy. Someone recently said: 'Oh it's obvious, you're a creative producer. Don't you just hate that? Another label! I just do what excites me. I can't pretend there was ever a game plan as such. I did however, promise myself that I would never be bored.

'There has been, with hindsight, a sense of things connecting up. I come from a family of visual artists except for my father who ran an accountancy business (for which my sisters and I will always be profoundly grateful). When I told him I wanted to study drama at college, he had a mild panic attack. The week before it had been theology, and he had to get the vicar in to talk me down. But he was really worried about the drama idea. He sat me down on the stairs: 'Can't I convince you to do something safe? Like fine art?' Hmm. The truth was, I didn't really know what to do. I wanted to do something that mattered. And... to have some fun.

'A family friend called Julian Watson rang up about his accounts and asked after me. Father told him it was either the church or the theatre and they were all terribly worried and whispered in huddles. Julian was teaching with the legendary Joan Russell at Worcester College. As a kid, in about 1970 I'd seen some of Julian's students performing what must have been contemporary dance on a makeshift stage on the pews in Kinver Church near Stourbridge. Something stuck in my mind. Must have been the all-in-one leotards. Yes! That would probably be it.

'Years later aged 19, I found myself in my first ever dance class - drowning in a sea of lycra. I hadn't got a clue, but it was great fun - Joan Russell truly the most extraordinary teacher. A former student of Rudolph Laban her approach provided me with a window into a world of fantastic ideas and concepts. Looking back, my penchant for big events involving hundreds of people is probably attributable to her. She used to create huge movement choirs - dancers of all ages in vast spaces - everybody flicking and dabbing - left, right and centre. (I can still remember my Icosahedron, don't mess with me!)

'As soon as my finals were over, I got a job as an Assistant Stage Manager (ASM) with Second City theatre company in Birmingham. Alan Lyddiard enquired: 'Do you know what a quarter jack is?' I said 'yes' and he gave me the job. I lied, of course. My Father did his accounts too...

'Being an ASM for a while was useful because it's good to know how things really work. My degree had been great, but there was so much basic practical experience I needed that no-one can teach you. After a year of touring shows and building sets, I felt a real need to get back to dance. A teacher in a middle school in Walsall had asked me to devise a performance. After a year, I found myself extremely busy working in primary and secondary schools across the UK, from Wolverhampton to Richmond, Oxford to Barnsley making very special dance-based performance events as Little Kids Construction Company. It seemed we had hit on something. These were not simply dance workshops. They were whole, process-based events, ideas-driven and explored with everyone - teachers, artists, pupils - working at maximum creative capacity to produce something we all cared about.

'It was challenging and fun. I set myself a challenge to apply dance-making to as many social and environmental contexts as possible working with young people in schools, play schemes, back streets, rural villages, museums, arts centres, theatre summer schools and young offenders centres. I had a call from a young offenders centre in Birmingham who wanted to make dance videos with a group of young men whose behaviour could be described as challenging. And to my immense surprise it worked. In fact it worked so well that I had to call it to a deliberate halt in order to keep a balance in my working life.

'I wanted to learn my craft and test what was possible. They were five fantastic and productive years, rich in experimentation but the financial rewards were, shall we say, sparse. At that time arts and dance education rarely had significant budgets within the funding system. What we did simply wasn't on the establishment radar. I was bounced from one Arts Council Officer to another without result, and when Father reported that the annual accounts showed that the car was costing more than I was taking home, I thought I had better get a proper job.

'I became a Dance Animateur for Sheffield and Rotherham (such a glamorous life). At the outset, my work mainly revolved around teaching, but it became increasingly important to respond to local needs - working with dancers, artists and small companies - to help with the process of turning ideas into performance. This resulted in the creation of an entity we called Dance Republic - a loose association of professional dance makers - with whom we created performance work and included choreographers such as Sue McClennan and Greg Nash. We also needed to bring about real development in dance performance programming and a group of us formed a consortium which eventually became Danceworks, still led by the extraordinary Annabel Dunbar. The experience of making Danceworks work, across all scales - from the tiniest studio to the Lyceum stage - was a great learning experience. Having people like the late Stephen Barry as a guide was critical. You have to know how things work, to draw on the users manual and it sometimes feels so difficult to ask. The mantra became: "Don't worry about it. Just ask".

'We also had huge fun with Sheffield Children's Festival, led by human dynamo Pauline Eveleigh. Involving thousands of children we created events in the industrial museum, parks, streets, on the supertram, a really scary one in a cemetery, and then, perhaps, the defining moment...

'Wayne, Rotherham's only cross-dressing all-dancing, all-singing drag queen, strapped to a 100 horse power RIB (an inflatable speedboat). Picture a summer night, on a lake - originally an old open-cast mining site outside Rotherham. The event - Survival - a promenade with performances and installations involving 400 young people - 15 schools, youth groups, dancers working with a team of 15 artists over a year. As the performance draws to a close, the audience surround the lake. Big opera music fills the night. Spotlights hit the speedboat and Wayne makes his entrance, strapped to the front - huge dress, huge blue wings, huge blue hair. Priscilla, eat your heart out. Fire works explode overhead, 12 water-skiers - all with wings and sparkly lights - swoosh around Wayne's spiralling speedboat - (apparently Wayne was rather taken with Rupert, his neoprene-skinned speedboat driver - I'm not sure he ever recovered. Poor Rupert). The fireworks reflect in the water and bounce off the spray from the water-skiers like fireflies suspended in space... Ok, you just had to be there. The audience were either rolling around in hysterics or sobbing their hearts out. What a moment.

'Living in Cornwall had long been an idle dream when suddenly a job became available. Cornwall represented an entirely different set of challenges, rural isolation being the biggest. Providing access to high quality dance experiences when the distances are so great, the population so scattered and the resources so few. There followed some extraordinary years creating youth dance networks, driving development in schools dance and building audiences for dance in some of the most unlikely venues. But the audiences in Cornwall got to see some superb work from companies like Akram Khan, Motionhouse, Fin Walker, Mavin Khoo and many, many others.

'The Hall for Cornwall (the new venue in Truro) was still under construction in 1998. There was absolutely no history of dance performance for audience. We gritted our teeth and programmed Random's Millenarium. It felt like a huge risk because at that time there were some who viewed dance development only in terms of Cornish Dance, which, whilst a perfectly valid dance form, wasn't really what my job was about.

'We became adept at finding the right material for the right stage and the right audience without being patronising or inappropriate. And the marketing challenge was enormous fun. We invented silly icons to describe dance in the brochure in an attempt to convince punters that dance and a sense of humour could actually go together. A picture of underpants in the brochure signified that 'kit might come off'. (Vincent Dance Theatre once got three pairs... sorry Charlotte). A picture of a pipe signified that your Dad might like it (thanks Father). We had to invent a special icon for Nigel Charnock. (No, I'm not telling.) But the best moment was Blush, the Wim Vanderkeybus show. It was the first international work, hard-hitting, very expensive and for the promoter a scary proposition. Tim Brinkman the Director of the Hall for Cornwall went for it and we all 'worked our socks off' with an intensive marketing campaign. We both privately bet - our best guestimate 350-400 attendees. It sold out - a thousand seats. You can't imagine how good that felt, especially when you know there are only 17,000 people living in Truro. Having proven what was possible, and with the support of the Dance Consortium and Dance Touring Network, Tim went on to programme companies like Australian Dance Theatre, Debra Colker, Netherlands Dance Theatre and Renegade's Rumble.

'The work with communities and sites in Cornwall has always been really exciting for me. The National Trust has been a visionary partner, and with the arrival of Creative Partnerships, things got really interesting. We began with relatively modest process-led events with schools and young people at such sites as Lanhydrock House (with Rambert) and Trerice Manor (where the composer Graham Fitkin premiered the immortal Music for 50 Lawnmowers (Trerice has a Lawnmower museum - we couldn't resist the choreographic challenge). Bill Mitchell and Sue Hill (then from Kneehigh Theatre) helped us find a great storyline for Firestorm - a large-scale event with 500 young people in Restormel Castle - The Black Prince's holiday home. The cast picked a King and Queen for the day and in the best and most tasteful tradition of ancient myths, cooked them, turned them into biscuits and fed them to the audience.

'In 2002 TC Howard joined us in a performance event that we curated with The National Trust in Boscastle Harbour. Working with six dancers and a group of artists she created Boz Looan: Selling the Wind. Apparently wise women used to capture the wind in knots of rope and sell the knots to sailors (well its one way of making a living). The outcome was a unique five-hour celebratory extravaganza, bringing together 500 local performers in a combination of procession, young people dancing in the gardens and in the streets, professional dance performances, a burning maze, fireworks and a rather brilliant outdoor dance party to wrap it up. This in turn led to the creation of C-Scape, a new young dance company for Cornwall, which has since made new works with Stephen Kirkham, Simon Birch and TC Howard.

'In the Polperro Festival in 2003 we formed a temporary project company of dancers and artists to work over a six month period with the entire community on a celebratory performance event throughout the town as part of a local festival.

'The Road to the Beach turned out to be the challenge of challenges. We worked with Motionhouse and a vast array of dancers and visual artists from Cornwall to create a promenade event over a mile or so of beach at Watergate Bay. It took 14 months to create with some 1300 people involved. Twenty-three schools and a number of community groups joined in. It was a very great thing, with some unforgettable moments but it's easy to forget how hard it was to raise the money, how complex to organise. My thyroid didn't forget. It just threw its toys out of the pram and stopped working. (Getting older is a real pain in the neck.)

'And then you realise that you haven't stopped working for 25 years. And there's a moment when you have to remind yourself why. When you're teaching dance to 11-year olds, I think the answer is standing (or jumping) in front of you, but when you're staring at yet another funding bid it doesn't always seem quite so clear. From where I am now, it seems important to hang on to the core of what drives us, the great idea. Looking back, so much of what has worked well has been an inspired guess rather than the result of a careful plan. These days I turn out business plans with frightening regularity, all very necessary and valid, but I'm convinced the really good stuff always happens when we're just making it up as we go along.

'Creative Partnerships offered me a year secondment during 2004-05 to explore new ideas, new ways of working - a chance to step back and reflect. It really was the most useful thing and I can highly recommend it. It provided some empty space with the possibility of that space being occupied by something as yet unknown.

'So what will happen next? Hold on, I need to draw on some quotes for this next bit. How about the title of an old Art of Noise track Something Always Happens. (1)

'No, that doesn't quite do it for me. Hold on... I've got it! The Italian Job, final scene, Michael Caine in a coach, balanced on the edge of a cliff trying to hang on to stolen gold...
' "Err... hang on a minute lads... I've got a great idea"... err... err..." ' (2)

contact antony@lanhydrock.fsnet.co.uk

Reference
1. The Art of Noise (1996 ) Something Always Happens. Indochina
2.Caine, M. (1969) The Italian Job. Directed by Peter Collinson.
www.imb.com/title/tt0064505
www.citizencaine.org/films/italian-job.shtml

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Animated: Winter 2006